Thursday, September 01, 2011

Is pretending food's not junk worse than serving junk food?

A few days ago I did an interview with CTV NewsChannel on Edmonton schools' "junk food ban", a "ban" enacted with the explicit purpose of helping combat childhood obesity.

I think the producer was a touch surprised during our pre-interview when I explained to her that not only hasn't Edmonton banned junk food, but they've gone and done worse, they've used nutritionism and health haloing to pretend the junk food they're still selling is in fact healthy.

What do I mean?

Instead of regular potato chips, they're selling baked potato chips.

Instead of high calorie candy, they're selling bags of dried apple slices.

Instead of sugared soda and energy drinks, they're selling juice and chocolate milk.

Oh, and they're calling bags of pulverized vegetable pulp, combined with pulverized rice and potato flour (vegetable chips), vegetables.

Hey School Boards! Listen up! Baked chips are still potato chips, they've just got marginally fewer calories and fat grams. Bags of apple slices? Sure they were once apples. In fact they were once 4 apples - with each bag containing all 4 apples' calories - 18% more than a Snickers bar, along with over 15 teaspoons of sugar. Juice? Drop per drop it has the same number of calories and same amount of sugar as soda. Chocolate milk? Double the calories and 20% more sugar.

Baking doesn't make chips healthy!

Dried fruit, while certainly a yummy choice, is just fibre with highly concentrated sugar!

Juice and chocolate milk? Don't get me started.

And vegetable chips as vegetables? Ugh.

Worse still, despite trotting out the banner of childhood obesity, there are no caloric guidelines to the school food reforms, and they still allow for extremely high levels of sodium, which in turn is often used in making highly processed junky food taste good, and consequently home cooking, comparatively bland.

So at the end of the day, what Edmonton (and Ontario, and virtually all Canadian school boards) are doing is still selling junk food, but now they're labeling it as "healthy". They're also contributing to the de-healthy-palate-ification of our children, and making parenting more difficult, even for parents who do say, "No", because now parents like me who actually take the time to teach kids about true evidence based nutrition, have a very real authority figure in schools telling our kids that what we've taught them about juice, chocolate milk, baked chips, pizza and ice cream days, is wrong.

There's a world of difference between slightly less awful and good, and yet here they're serving at best (and that's a huge stretch) slightly less awful food, and telling kids and parents and society that it's good for you.

We're a very long, long way away from healthy schools. If this had been rolled out as a small step towards a much more comprehensive long term reform, maybe I could clap. Given that it's being rolled out as health food, it makes me wonder whether the schools would be better off selling absolute garbage - because at least then they wouldn't be undermining parents like me because they couldn't get away with pretending it was healthy.

Oh, and one side argument. Some folks have said that given kids can just walk across the street and buy junk, that the schools should too. I'm pretty sure they can buy cigarettes across the street - doesn't mean schools should sell them.

Schools should be safe, healthy, exemplary places, because you're damn right, pretty much everywhere else is horrifying.

My two lines in the sand?

1. Schools shouldn't be serving or selling foods that their teachers teach their students not to eat.

2. Schools shouldn't be selling junk food and calling it healthy.

So terrifically sad.

End of rant.

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  1. This reminds me of a co-worker of mine who used to bring low-fat cheesecake to work. "It's guilt free!" he'd say. "Made with low-fat cream cheese, butter and sour cream!" Sorry, but it was still cheesecake and not a fruit salad. People are so easily persuaded by "healthier choices" that they loose common sense. Schools need to set a better example and consider educating students about actual nutrition in the curriculum.

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  3. Reminds me of all the people who boast about how healthy they are now that they've switched to fat-free ranch dressing. Gimme a break.

  4. Anonymous8:09 am


  5. Frustrated Parent8:22 am

    My children's school is a so called "healthy school." A couple of years ago they "improved" the cafeteria menu to make it healthier. Highlights of said improvements included switching regular chicken nuggets for multigrain ones. They also switched regular sausage for turkey sausage. Parents (and the school's administration) delude themselves into thinking these processed foods are healthy when in reality sodium, nitrites and overall calories are not reduced.
    On a related topic, every year our school sends home a bunch of letters reminding parents to pack healthy lunches for their kids. It is often pointed out in these letters that candy is not allowed into the school. It takes me aback that the school has to remind parents of this, as I always imagined it being common sense. Yesterday, my daughter came home with, in her words, "Great news!" that children who do extremely well on a given activity assigned to them will receive a piece of gum from the classroom's gumball machine as a reward! Argh!!!!! Is this a mixed message, or am I nuts?

  6. This post totally reminded me of a time when my youngest went to preschool. Every day we'd drop her off and read the menu board - which was always posted right in the open. We were told, right down the to smallest details, everything the kids would be eating that week, right down to what they'd be drinking (which was either milk or water). It was amazing. The menu was fresh and varied and healthy and designed by a nutritionist. I felt like she was eating a wider variety of foods at school than she was at home. The teachers ate the same food too, as did the ED. I was so impressed. They were DOING what they were TEACHING. And I think the same should be reflected in food policies for Ontario schools as well as other places like hospitals (you've written about that before). Let's practice what we preach, because anything else is a mixed message.

    I think in this case, with the school boards, it has been a poor choice of words from the beginning. I'm not sure if they're planning to eventually eliminate all the bad stuff, but if they are, they should have probably referred to this as a "step" towards a bigger goal.

  7. How sad that the schools are so irresponsible when it comes to healthy food choices...why not get rid of the vending machines altogether? I have never seen too many healthy choices in a machine.

  8. It's a step in the right direction but it should only be a step and not the solution. You are so right. Thanks for the rant. Folks needed to hear it.

  9. The public first must learn what nutrition is, and they are not going to "get it" through the popular press. They need to understand concepts like caloric density, nutrition density, BMR, and diet design, nutritional requirement of the human body. It is difficult to learn from marketing grade misinformation.

    There is a lot to know before we, the lay persons, can make informed decisions about food, and have the confidence to say that most of the public have a deluded concept of what is healthy food.

    The government has failed badly at getting the correct information to the public. What is need is a Real Food Guide, where manufactured eatable products are not considered food.

  10. Alexie11:08 am

    I always find it worrying that we all need to be educated in the minutae of food. Where I live in central Europe, I don't have to worry about food because stringent 'food purity' laws mean that what's on the tin is what's inside it. If it says 'banana baby food' then it's a jar of mashed bananas.

    Modern foods are packaged and marketed with one intent: to deceive. They are never what they say they are. If food had to be labelled correctly - e.g. so that what is now termed 'lemon cake' would actually be revealed as 'cake base flavoured with artificial lemon flavouring' - a whole lot of problems would disappear immediately. Who would buy it?

    Make the manufacturers change their behaviour.

  11. My kids currently go to a school that doesn't serve food and doesn't have vending machines. I cringe for the day they go to middle school and see all the crap available. For now I enjoy that the food I send in their lunches is the food they actually eat. I think all schools should follow suit and not serve any food or allow vending machines. Kids can bring their own lunches. (I realize I'm over generalizing here, but for us, packing our own lunches work well. I send treats with my kids but they are always homeade, this doesn't always make them healthy but they never contain preservatives or transfats so I'm more happy with that choice than a candy bar out of a machine.)

  12. Anonymous12:20 pm

    To answer the question posed in the title of this blog post: Yes, in my opinion!
    Many people want to make healthier choices but realistically just don't have the time, means, etc, to wade through the mass of misinformation out there. At the very least, your child's school should be one place where you can feel assured that only healthy food is being served. I would bet a good many parents will take this change as great news and will be happy to buy the baked chips and dried fruit and all the others at the grocery store and feel like they're offering their kids and themselves healthy snacks.

  13. ah, one of my favorite subjects: fake health foods.

    Where I'm from (California) school nutrition policies have been improved in a step-wise fashion, first getting them in place and now the task of closing loopholes, but loopholes still abound. Calorie and sodium regulations are a great way to help weed out the fake health foods.

    Just stumbled upon your blog, think its great! I'm a dietitian and write a nutrition/travel blog. Always looking for new sites to read, so will be adding yours to my list.

  14. Diane1:47 pm

    My daughters school is part of the edmonton initiative. She informed her teacher today that the vending machine was wrong by still selling "low salt" potato chips and sun chips because if these foods were healthy they would be found on Canada's Food Guide, and they are not. Good girl.

  15. Anonymous2:58 pm

    Please, write a letter to the Edmonton Journal outlining what you've said here. The big article they ran yesterday about the new "healthy choices" needs rebuttal! Thanks.

    Jackie in Edmonton

  16. This applies to far more than just school...the disillusion about processed food amazes me, also how easily people are manipulated by wording and don't choose to question. Example: A coffee shop sells a "reduced" fat coffee cake. The amount of times I see people ask "What is low fat?" and then exclaim "OH I'll take the coffee cake" is astounding. What these people should be asking is reduced from WHAT? It could be 10,000g to 9999g and they wouldn't have a clue!

  17. Anonymous3:17 pm

    I'm also thinking that a good way to keep kids from buying ANYTHING from a vending machine is to just not give them money! Where are kids getting cash for these machines if not from their parents?? Just make a rule that cash is only handed out and spent in the company of a parent.

  18. Thank you for writing this! Ever since the Ontario School Board released their new school food policy document, I have been stewing over the 'changes'. Are they really changes? My oldest is just starting school (SK) this year, so I only have to pack a snack and don't have to worry too much about the school food influence. I do think that all schools should incorporate nutrition into the curriculum. There are some great, FREE, programs out there that only require 15 minutes a week at the elementary level. If parents are providing nutritious foods for their children then why not start educating children.

  19. @Alexie

    I will be dead before the government makes any real and meaningful change. The only way is educating on at a time to make better diet choices. I was misinformed for all the yeas of my life, until I retired, and had the time to decide to beat this obesity problem. More on my blog.

  20. Anonymous10:01 pm

    Yoni I love this article that you posted...I swear she is speaking my mind!!! So refreshing to read others comments of others that feel the same frustration.

  21. Anonymous11:40 pm

    sooo true - what a joke. It's just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to get real in schools - about healthy eating and that is doesn't come out of a package or a machine - we actually need to learn how to make it and when to eat it (not every time you feel like it and walk by a machine).

  22. Anonymous4:59 pm

    Leaving aside the issue of portion size, is a dried apple REALLY "just fibre and concentrated sugar"? I've been doing a bunch of research on food preservation techniques, and it turns out that drying food actually preserves many nutrients very well. And you've got to admit apples contain more than just fibre and sugar.

    Now, the bag should be smaller (say, one apple's worth?) and the dentists might argue, but there are certainly worse choices out there than dried fruit.